Salman Rushdie decries war, censorship

FAIRFIELD, Conn. — “What’s that they say about the pen being mightier than the sword?” asked Salman Rushdie, author of “The Satanic Verses,” the irreverent tale of the prophet Muhammad that caused Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini to pronounce a judgment of death on Rushdie in 1988. The author recently visited Connecticut, where he opened Fairfield University’s Open Visions Forum.

Regarding his dispute with Khomeini, Rushdie said he had simply outlived it. Following the death of Khomeini in 1998, the Iranian government publicly stated it would call off its “fatwa” against Rushdie. While some Islamic fundamentalists still consider it to be active, the author has officially come out of hiding and even felt safe enough to have allowed The New York Times to cover his wedding to Indian actress, Padma Lakshmi, earlier this year.

On the current U.S. administration, Rushdie told the World: “President Bush did not tell the truth to the United Nations. Things in Iraq are not getting better, they are getting worse. This is not my opinion — everybody knows that Bush is just electioneering. … In Britain they woke up quicker than in the U.S. They knew they had been sold a bill of goods and sent to war on a lie. I don’t know why there isn’t more outrage over here.”

And it’s not just the U.S.-led war in Iraq which Rushdie takes issue with when it comes to Bush administration’s policies. As the newly elected president of American PEN, the association of writers and editors, Rushdie has led a successful effort to gather tens of thousands of signatures in an attempt to overturn what he calls the “Big Brother provisions” of the USA Patriot Act.

“It applies to the usual suspect countries and proclaims that any writer, translator or literary agent who writes an introduction, footnotes, or any type of explanation which goes beyond the direct translation, will be considered to have traded with the enemy,” said Rushdie. “And writers banned in those countries must also be banned here. ... If this happens, we will take the U.S. government to court on the grounds of infringing our very fundamental freedoms.”

In a related development, U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero struck down parts of the Patriot Act as unconstitutional in a decision on Sept. 29. Marrero said that, contrary to the Act’s provisions, the government must first get a judge’s approval before getting access to an individual’s Internet and telephone accounts.

The author-turned-activist stated he fully understands terrorism exists and must be dealt with appropriately, but it is not necessary to “censor poets.” He said that, throughout the ages, many writers and great thinkers were banned, tortured and killed — just as Khomeini tried to do to him. He added that fear of terrorism and the government’s use of that fear is why many Americans have stopped questioning their leaders.

“September 11th was a sucker punch,” said Rushdie. “The terrorists got lucky once because of a colossal security failure in the U.S. We then came to believe that they were more powerful than they really were. But, we now have a terrorist state that didn’t exist before. How did it happen? You heard Bush say, ‘Bring it on.’ Now every terrorist who wants to kill Americans goes to Iraq. The only way it can stop is if America stops bullying the world.”

The author also told the World that while he had a good laugh over the grounding of Yusef Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) from a recent flight, he finds it rather absurd.

“If Cat Stevens is the problem, then we are all screwed,” mused Rushdie. “Let the Cat in!” Yusef Islam was deported to England on Sept. 22.

Rushdie said the U.S. government should examine its policies to see if what it’s doing in the name of security is helping or hurting.

“I came to this country for freedom,” said Rushdie. “It would be a great tragedy if fear allowed our freedom to be taken away.”

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.